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South Africa: Ramaphosa rival Magashule plays the long game

By The Africa Report
Posted on Friday, 22 January 2021 09:17

Ace Magashule, the secretary general of South Africa's ruling African National Congress reacts as he appears at the Bloemfontein high court in the Free State province, South Africa
Ace Magashule, the secretary general of South Africa's ruling African National Congress reacts as he appears at the Bloemfontein high court in the Free State province, South Africa, November 13, 2020. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

The African National Congress has postponed at the 11th hour a long-awaited discussion on the fate of its highest-ranking full-time official, secretary general Ace Magashule. Magashule has refused to step down as recommended last month by the party’s integrity commission, consisting of elders appointed to police leaders’ morals, after he was charged with corruption.

This weekend’s agenda item on this matter was postponed by three weeks, the party said in a statement on Thursday 21 January, so that its top six national officials could “meet to finalise guidelines on the implementation of the ‘step aside’ rule” for the national executive committee to consider.

A party insider said the postponement was a temporary victory for Magashule, who leads a lobby in the party working to oust President Cyril Ramaphosa. “It sounds like they’re going to try delay and delay and fight about process,” he said.

This week was, however, not a good one for Magashule. He was forced to publicly denounce one of his leading public supporters, Carl Niehaus, after Niehaus played him off against deputy secretary general, Jessie Duarte.

Niehaus is also a key staffer in Magashule’s office but has been threatened with suspension and a disciplinary by the party’s staff management over his utterances.

“I distance myself from any and all activities which cause disunity in my name,” Magashule said in a letter attached to the leaked memo informing Niehaus of the party’s intention to suspend him.

According to the published agenda, the party’s national executive committee at its meeting this weekend is expected to focus on the government’s Covid-19 response and the planned vaccine rollout.

Jackson Mthembu mourned

It’s likely to be overshadowed by the death on the morning of 21 January of one of its more prominent members, Jackson Mthembu. Mthembu was minister in the Presidency and a key figure in Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign after rising to national prominence a decade ago as party spokesperson under the leadership of former president Jacob Zuma.

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Some party leaders could attempt to sneak the discussion on corruption back onto this weekend’s agenda, but thus far they have given no indication of this.

Magashule’s detractors are hoping to remove him eventually by forcing the 86-strong national executive committee to a vote, as they believe the numbers are stacked in their favour.

The party was divided nearly in the middle at its 2017 conference at the Nasrec Convention Centre near Johannesburg where Ramaphosa was elected by a narrow margin over Zuma’s preferred candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

These divisions are about policy emphasis, access to state resources, and personality, with supporters of Magashule and Zuma accusing Ramaphosa’s government of failing to implement the resolutions from that conference and of failing to keep the ANC together.

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In an interview with local radio station Power FM last Friday, 15 January, Ramaphosa admitted that party unity “is slipping through our fingers”.

But he warned during a live-streamed address on the ANC’s January 8 birthday that “unity cannot be used to shield those involved in wrongdoing from being held accountable”.

Magashule’s supporters say those who have called on him to step down are trying to use the party’s rules selectively to get rid of opponents. They also argue that, should the case drag on a long time, or charges be dropped, or he be ruled innocent, Magashule’s career and image would already have irreparably been damaged by him stepping aside.

As the party’s full-time administrator, Magashule has considerable power to stack the party’s grassroots support in its branches against Ramaphosa ahead of the party’s leadership election next year, but this would be somewhat more difficult to do from outside the organisation.

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The president’s detractors argue that Ramaphosa, too, had a case to answer for the R400 million he raised to fund his presidential campaign in 2017. The party’s rules do not allow for fundraising for internal campaigns. Ramphosa has subsequently been accused of vote-buying and of possibly being beholden to whoever sponsored him.

The matter over whether bank statements showing payments to the campaign team should be made public is currently awaiting a court decision, and Ramaphosa’s detractors say this means he should step aside too.

‘Political lawfare’

Magashule’s supporters claim state institutions are also being used in this fight. Ramaphosa has gradually been beefing up the prosecutions authority with leaders and prosecutors capable enough of bringing corruption to book.

White-collar crimes have gone unprosecuted in most of the nine years of Zuma’s presidency after political interference in this institution stripped it of experience and skills.

National executive committee member Dakota Legoete earlier this month, however, wrote that he felt the National Prosecuting Authority is being used for “political lawfare”.

He added that Magashule’s alleged crime dates back to 2014 and that the 200 computer tablets he requested as a donation from the business involved was meant for poor students and not a kickback. The R255m government tender to replace asbestos roofs of homes in the Free State was granted when Magashule was premier in the province, and despite reports that he embezzled money from a number of government projects, it is so far the only one that has gone to court.

Magashule faces charges of corruption, fraud, theft and money-laundering related to this tender, and his next court appearance is scheduled for 19 February, days after the ANC’s postponed discussion on his fate is set to take place.

Ramaphosa already put his foot down in August last year when he urged leaders to respect the party’s resolution that they should step aside when charged with corruption, but internal differences over what exactly this means has seen the party kicking the can down the road.

Magushule plays the long game

Insiders claim that Magashule’s tactic is “delay, delay, delay” until May when the ANC is expected to have its national general council, a gathering traditionally attended by 4000 to 5000 branch representatives midway between the five-yearly conferences.

The Covid-19 lockdown meant the national general council had to be postponed from last year and plans to hold it on a digital platform are still being finalised.

Magashule, who has quietly been overseeing a process of growing the party’s membership to a record 1.4 million in the past three years, is hoping that he would find a bigger proportion of support amongst these ordinary members.

If he did his homework well, a vote in such a meeting is more likely to go in his favour. Lobbying the members remotely might, however, prove more challenging than lobbying them in person.